WALKING around Barnsley, you can’t miss them. Tall, aimless men – few women – looking as out of place as birds of paradise in a Barnsley park.
They are the most visible edge of the new phenomenon of asylum seekers, deposited in numbers in Yorkshire towns. There are soon going to be a lot more of them. Yorkshire as a whole will take 1,600 Syrian refugees, quite a few of whom will be assigned to the low cost housing in Barnsley.
As recently as 1998 you never saw a foreign face in Barnsley – 0.1 per cent of the population has increased to 10 per cent in barely 10 years. No longer are you held up on a Saturday by groups of ex-miners chatting. Now it is Arabs, or East Europeans, or those Africans, few with any English, all on their phones.
I started to ask questions. Why, in this small and struggling community, are they here? The path from Eritrea, Sudan, Syria or Iran to Barnsley – which already has its share of problems – was one which I had to discover. It proved difficult, mostly because questions put to anyone in authority caused barely suppressed panic. So convinced are them upstairs that we will be viciously unwelcoming if we find that one penny of public money has been spent, they say nothing. Information is extracted drip by drip.
When I plucked up the courage to speak to asylum seekers though, I found them pathetically grateful to talk. Even those with almost no English wanted to feel that someone was taking notice. Those who could tell their stories did so with utter sincerity.
Take M, from Iran. An anxious man, he fled after a two day police beating left him with chipped teeth and a shattered knee. His crime was to be a Zoroastrian, a religion disapproved of by Islam. M was a financial controller in a company, and became aware of a scam, which he naively thought his boss would want to hear about. Big mistake. On his release from prison, his parents-in-law paid to have him, his wife and child spirited away.
All the escape journeys are epic, but his peculiarly so. A mountain trek on horseback, Turkey, Greece. Lorries, trains, on and on. He was heading for Canada, where he had contacts, and for still more money his trafficker put the family on a plane. They found themselves abandoned in the transit lounge at Heathrow.
“The people there were kind to me,” says M, in amazement. “Food, drink. Toys for my child.” The very next morning they were on a bus to Wakefield. Days later he was in Barnsley, one of the 400 or so asylum seekers the Home Office deems our annual quota.
But what is he costing us, you want to know? All right, he’s a refugee, but how much do we pay? As little as possible is the answer there. Accommodation is contracted out to G4S, the prisons people. It is not council housing. This little family lives in a tiny terraced house, all bills paid by the Government. They receive about £5 a day per person. A single man gets £36 a week and lives in a shared house, his housemates coming and going in an ever revolving door.
Of course, the added costs are healthcare and schools. M required knee surgery, his son goes to school. But he is no triumphant consumer of our welfare. He is a man adrift, haunted by what has happened. His English is poor – our language provision is minimal – his qualifications invalid, but he insisted “I say thank you to England, to Barnsley, to your Queen”.
The Africans are different. I met people from Eritrea and Sudan, startlingly good looking young men and a few young women. Their English is uniformly terrible. In the strictest sense of the term, they are probably economic migrants, but the economies they are migrating from are so grim that fleeing seems the only intelligent move. Eritrea has been racked by war for decades, as has Sudan.
There is no work except the army, which they view as joining a bunch of murderous thugs.
Emad, 27-years-old, started his journey two years ago after “trouble with government – why else I leave my wife and child?” He crossed nine countries, imprisoned in Hungary, Austria and Bulgaria, finally journeying through Italy and France to – you guessed it – Calais. “But why didn’t you stay in Italy?” I asked, thinking of sunshine, good food, wine – he didn’t seem a very Islamic Muslim. He looked almost tearful. “They no give water. No food. Nothing. Italy, France, no good.” As always, it is Britain that offers basic humanity and we are suffering for it. The others should be ashamed.
All the Africans come from Calais on a lorry. After months Emad eventually joined others in paying a driver, emerging half dead on a roundabout somewhere. He too is wordlessly grateful for the kind hands that fed and watered him and gave him a clean bed.
But they are all so miserable. Their lives are drifting away. Asylum seekers are banned from working so they wander Barnsley’s streets, idle and depressed. “What will you do if you are allowed to stay here?” I ask. “College,” they all say. “I go college!”
News pictures of British aid convoys going out to refugee camps are all very well, but the mood in Barnsley is deeply uneasy. Barnsley natives resent the cost and fear the people, as well they might when fit young black men with startling hair stride about
But that is no reason to be cruel. Locally we can do nothing to stem the tide, and the individuals who come amongst us need our help. Officialdom grinds out sporadic assistance, but what these people need is contact with us, the locals. Getting dumped in Barnsley is no picnic. They need to talk to us so they can learn the language, they need help in grasping what it means to live in a tolerant, law abiding democracy. If you think you can help, turn up at the Barnsley YMCA and offer.